Bible According to Batman

DarkKnightRises Biblical tropes are alive and well in popular culture. Many would choose the flight option rather than admit they enjoy a good Bible story. They may anyway, however, without realizing it. Although The Dark Knight Rises came out over a year ago, I only just had the chance to watch it. For a kid who grew up on the campy 1960’s television series, Christopher Nolan offers adult fare. Put the kiddie menu away and sit up straight at the table. I don’t read reviews, in general, before seeing movies because I don’t enjoy spoilers. I had no idea whether Batman would come out of this alive or not. I wasn’t really even sure who Bane was (even before The Dark Knight everyone knew who the Joker was, or thought they did). The Dark Knight Rises places the whole of Heilsgeschichte (sacred history) before the viewer with verbal cues. Unless you’re reading while watching, you’ll miss it though.

Bruce Wayne is clearly cast as the wounded healer in this final installment of the trilogy. Physically and psychologically crippled, he hobbles around in a combination of Jesus and Yoda figures, somehow supernatural yet fully human. Death and resurrection transpire twice for him in this film. When Bane breaks Batman’s back (an often fatal injury) even Catwoman thinks he might be dead. He is very much alive, however, in the prison only “Bane” escaped (resurrection one). Not only does he rise from the grave, he also ascends into heaven by escaping the well—anyone who’s read Jeremiah, or even Genesis, knows the origin of that motif. Risen, ascended, and glorified, Batman returns to beat the crap out of Bane. But the bomb is still on the loose and before Batman faces his nemesis he tells Commissioner Gordon to arrange “an exodus”—Joseph’s descendants must get out of Egypt. At the Red Sea (the Hudson River) the Pharaoh’s army blocks the exodus of the children of St. Swithun’s who, in response, bow their heads in prayer (am I the only one seeing this?)

Commissioner Gordon, found guilty of betraying the common man, receives the sentence of Exile (“death, by exile” to be precise). Again, those sensitive to Jeremiah know that exile is a kind of death, but death with a noble purpose. The Heilsgeschichte of Israel involves exodus and exile. The Christians added on death, resurrection, and ascension. Christopher Nolan put them together in one Dark Knight. But I mentioned two resurrections, no? Flying the bomb out of Gotham, Batman is definitively blown to smithereens—the blast radius was, after all, six miles. And yet, Alfred has a post-resurrection visitation, where no touching occurs (Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father) sees his savior. Was the Bat the Holy Spirit on autopilot? Is that Catwoman with him? Might I be so bold as to type Mary Magdalene? Well, I may be over a year late with my observations of The Dark Knight Rises, but as I think Christopher Nolan understands, the Bible has been lying around even longer. If the success of this movie is anything to go by, it will be around for a long time yet to come.

Neither Black nor White

What hath Rome to do with Lagos? In the portion of the newspaper where religion is freely discussed—the Sunday edition, of course—Jeff Kunerth published a thoughtful piece entitled “Black atheists might feel lonely, but they’re not alone.” Kunerth reveals a double dilemma for the African-American non-believer: strong emic social pressure to be religious and etic deconstruction of race by many atheists. I know African-American humanists, and I have been informed of the lack of attention given to humanism and race. Both, in many circles, are troubling concepts. We like to think we’d evolved to the point of “race” disappearing from the social spectrum, but we also feel pride concerning cultural achievements, some of which are tied to “race.” Where would our culture be without the influence of African-American music, story, and art? Is belief required to truly belong?

I often wonder why it is that skin tone is used to divide people. Inevitably my thought goes back to the Bible. In the ancient view reflected in the book of Genesis, all creatures, humanity included, were created with inviolable boundaries of “kind.” As mules and ligers demonstrate, however, boundaries are often only as strict as we permit them to be. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” Jeremiah rhetorically asks in 13.23 of his eponymous book, “or the leopard his spots?” Not only is race fixed, but gender as well. Each according to his own kind. It’s this easy division that’s troubling me. Humans of all “races” may interbreed, something not possible for the liger or mule. We are free to change our outlook. The leopard spots are in our minds.

None of this is meant to belittle the difficulties faced by black atheists, or any others who are excluded by their own “kind.” It is simply a suggestion that we might enlarge the pie, to borrow from Getting to Yes, before dividing it. Belief has to be a matter of conscience, and acceptance should be a matter of principle. Too often religious beliefs divide rather than unite. Atheists and true believers, of one “race” or many, have a common cause to make a better world for all. The prophet anticipates a negative answer to his rhetorical question. Allow me, Jeremiah, respectfully to disagree. Yes, a leopard may change its spots anywhere except in the prejudiced savannah of the human mind.

Leopard_africa

Parsing God

Being married to a Girl Scout leads to many benefits beyond just the cookies. Not that cookies are unimportant, of course. Having been a Boy Scout briefly back in the 1970’s, I recall three-finger salutes, rambunctious meetings, and the occasional camping trip complete with the rabbit coming out of the hole, going around the tree and then something else. I’m sure there was a Boy Scout pledge, but I can’t remember it. Like most group activities, Boy Scout meetings served mainly to remind me of my own inferiority, and so my mind does not often enjoy visiting those places. Having attended a few Girl Scout meetings over the years as my daughter was growing up, I heard the Girl Scout promise a few times, and was a little surprised that the phrase, “To serve my God” has remained unaltered, even with the changing face of the population. When I attended an event hosted by the Elks, the civic organization, the presenter began by explaining the rules for who might join. It too, is limited to theists. The reason for such admission requirements has me pondering if there was a time God was an endangered entity in the United States. If not, why insist on this proviso?

I’ve been reading about religion’s role in society. Something that those who seek primarily the deep, personal and experiential aspect of religion may not realize is that religion is a form of social order. Scientific knowledge about God, if God be incorporeal, non-material, and beyond space and time, is impossible. Religions don’t prove God’s existence, but they serve to reinforce the sanction of the sacred for human society. They have an essential role in that drama. By limiting membership to believers organizations such as the Elks are merely asserting their belief in the working of the system. Of course, from the beginning those who do not believe risk little by claiming they do believe.

But what of the doubter, who may be the truest believer of all? Some Girl Scout literature has a footnote, parsing God: “The word ‘God’ can be interpreted in a number of ways, depending on one’s spiritual beliefs.” Belief is a form of commitment more than a mental certainty. In the Hebrew Bible belief was not as strong a suit as obedience; and thus it had been for the history of organized religion. Starting perhaps as early as Jeremiah, a shift began to take religion more toward a matter of internal commitment. In the face of utter loss, Jeremiah (or one of his fans) suggested that belief was more important that unthinking obedience. Belief is very subtle but vitally powerful. Lives are staked, and sometimes lost, on it. So while you’re enjoying another cookie, try parsing your belief. Me? I’m still trying to figure out when that rabbit goes back in the hole.

Religious Raven

Having seldom achieved any sort of public recognition in my youth, I have been gratified to observe the approbation my daughter frequently earns. One such instance occurred yesterday as she won an Outstanding Presenter award at the state level of 4-H. For her presentation she introduced and recited Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” from memory. As much as I like to take credit for some of her taste in literature, her remarkable memorizing ability that has impressed several judges and parents along the way is the result of her own determination. “The Raven” has always been among my favorite poems. As I listened to my daughter’s recitation yesterday, once again the wealth of religious and biblical images stood out.

Starting subtly with the perching of the raven on a bust of Pallas, Athena, the protective goddess of Athens itself, Poe adds the supernatural to his lamentation on the death of his wife. The bird’s origins on “the night’s Plutonian shore” also point the reader to the classical underworld toward which the poem inevitably points. The last five stanzas, where Poe’s verse turns directly toward his black thoughts at the decline of his wife, introduce the presence of seraphim—the turning point in the poem—angelic beings mentioned as attendants to God’s throne in Isaiah. The divine presence, however, offers Poe no comfort as the raven refuses to relinquish his memories of his love. Asking with Jeremiah (and citing the bird as prophet) if there is balm in Gilead, the poet is informed no such comfort exists. Calling God in Heaven as witness the bereaved asks if in Eden (Aidenn) he will be reunited with his bride, only to be informed such will not be the case. The raven, compared to devil, thing of evil, and a demon, represents for Poe the ultimate reality.

“The Raven” is a dark poem, tinged with religious imagery that was freely drawn upon in the nineteenth century. Having heard it recited many times over the past few months, I have come to believe that Poe would have been in accord with my belief that religion and fear are close siblings. When the climax of the author’s pain and sorrow is reached, the religious imagery predominates. This is a paradigm of many human lives. How many non-religious folk seek to make their peace with the supernatural when death is imminent? “Eleventh hour conversion” may be a trite trope, but it does point to something that Edgar Allan Poe recognized long before me—when we find ourselves most afraid religious impulses are frequently at hand.

Worshipping Religion

When does religion itself cross that invisible line into becoming the object of idolatry? In a world of an entire marketplace (“bazaar” might be a better word-choice) of religions, where each consumer selects his or her product, some take that choice with such conviction that the religion itself becomes their god. In ancient times religion was often a matter of ensuring that the gods were not angry. The average citizen had little control over this since the religious life of city-states and nations was the responsibility of the priesthood. Just pay your temple taxes and shut up. A religion anyone can live with. Last night as we discussed Jeremiah’s temple sermon in class the point became clear: even the God-chosen, fully approved temple in Jerusalem could become an idol.

Watching political candidates and parties and factions of parties posturing (apart from reminding one of peacocks and other showy birds) for possible election, they fly high the flags of their faith and hope that the market favors their brand. It is clear among many of their constituencies that the religions themselves have become objects of worship. How else can the rancor among a deeply divided Christianity (as only one example) be explained? Families and friends are torn apart by a common faith while ministers with the dubious benefit of seminary egg them on. Having been subjected to seminary as both student and instructor, I tremble when I think how clergy are trained. A holy nationalism pervades religions, transforming the faithful into armies that some, unfortunately, end up taking literally.

All the endless debates about religious violence and evolution and abortion should have taught us by now: no one has God in the witness stand. Our religions are our best guesses, no more, no less. In the face of great uncertainty many turn to the bravado of a faith that is willing to murder in order to prove its point. If God is really watching all this, perhaps a humble acceptance might be more appropriate? I think old Jeremiah might have agreed. Of course, he likely died at the hands of his own people who didn’t like his version of religion. That’s where the prophets have gone.

Natufia to Say

The Natufian culture predated the Israelites by millennia. They were gone by at least 7000 years by the time Israel appeared. The Natufians seem to have been the first permanent residents of a hotly disputed piece of real estate: Israel/Palestine. On Monday MSNBC reported on the archaeological find of a feasting hall among the Natufians. The story reminded my wife of similar stone-age sites that we visited in the Orkney Islands several years ago. What the story reminded me of, however, was the marzeah. The Natufian site features two activities: feasting and burial. The article notes the coincidence of 28 human burials, including one shaman, and the unmistakable signs of feasting. Bring them together and its sounds like marzeah time to me!

Natufian burial, from Wikipedia Commons

The marzeah is an imperfectly understood social institution from the ancient Levant. It is mentioned in the Bible as well as in the Ugaritic texts. Although plausibly reconstructed by modern theorists, we simply do not have a complete record of what the marzeah entailed. Two of the key elements seem to have been feasting and a funerary nature. Monotheistic religions tend to downplay the role of the dead as influential entities since they interfere with a monistic view of the divine. The two Hebrew Bible references (Amos 6.7 and Jeremiah 16.5) do not speak highly of the practice. The Ugaritic material suggests drinking may have been involved as well, further problematizing the ritual.

Now here is where the ambiguity of archaeology is thrown into sharp relief. The fact is we do not know what the Natufians were doing when they buried or feasted at this site. The Hilazon Tachtit Cave does not seem to have been a regular occupation site, and we do not have any reason to connect the burials with the feasting. Beyond a hunch. The hunch is the incredible urge to bring like things together. People excel at pattern-recognition. When I read of funerals and feasting my mind leapt to the marzeah. There seems to be no organic connection between the Natufians and Israelites (or Ugaritians), but the continuity of cultural concepts seems to strong to dismiss. Were ancient people toasting their dead with feasts that were remembered down into the Late Bronze and Iron Ages?